Defining “Real” Permaculture

I recently read the article, “If That’s Not Permaculture, What is?” on While articles often covers more technical topics, like nitrogen fixing trees for differing climates, how to build varieties of greenhouses, and all of the benefits of bamboo, this piece takes a more philosophical approach. The author questions what it means to be a permauculturalist. The author reads about permaculture everyday and writes about it every week. He has built several gardens but can see the gardens’ flaws, knows they are not fully self sufficient and know that the garden owners will not make them so in the future. He lives in a fossil fuel based society and goes to the grocery store where food is shipped in from different parts of the world. Is he a permaculuralist? My story is exactly the same as his. I study. I write. I garden. I feed the worms. But I drive my car and eat bananas in winter in Canada. Am I a permaculturalist? Part of me advises that I keep my distance from the label for the sake of being impartial for my research. But another part of me wants to embrace the title and wave my “permie” flag. Even if I want the title do I deserve it?

The author discusses how permaculture has moved into the mainstream, so you can see it being “practiced” in average people’s homes. A suburban parent might call a few edible plants growing organically in their window “permaculture.” Is it fair to put this suburbanite in the same category as permaculturalist homesteader who is living entirely off grid and growing all of their food? What about the farmer that practices above and beyond organic principles and implements “permaculture” strategies to eliminate all waste and build soil, but doesn’t follow the permaculture message boards or call herself a permie? Does the suburban parent really understand the whole system approach permaculture is preaching? Is it fair for the off-grid homesteader to cast permaculture judgement on the urban dweller who can never live “off-grid?” Is “permaculture” the practice, or the intent, or the community and culture?

While these may all seem like silly rhetorical questions, they have significant implications for my research. If I can’t define a permaculture project, how can I identify it and quantify its impact? The more research I do the more nuanced the issues become. I was reading a scholarly article comparing organic and conventional farming practices. National Organic Standards prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals, GMOs, and sewage sludge for certified farms. Supposedly, the aim of organic agriculture is to foster plant nutrition and also conserve soil and water resources. This a logical goal, but the organic standards don’t necessarily result in that aim. If you run a conventionally designed farm and drop the chemicals and GMOs you would likely have a crop decimated by pests and weeds. You need to incorporate crop rotation strategies (which many conventional farms do to some extent) and organic sources of nutrients, like manure, compost, and nitrogen fixing cover crops, often called “green manure” (common permaculture strategies). Does the general aim of organic mean that any farming practices trying to conserve soil and water can be called “organic”? Both conventional farmers and permaculturalists do that too. The very first phrase in the article’s abstract is “organic technologies,” which supposedly are ancient. I would assume when these practices were developed they were just called “farming.” Many of the books, articles, and podcasts I am consuming elude to a small but  growing grey area, where restorative agriculture projects are putting more emphasis on being commercially practical, and conventional agriculture farms are striving to be better stewards of the land.

The more reading and thinking I do, the more questions I have. I am currently developing a survey which I will use to identify potential research sites. My original plan was to start the survey with “Do you have a permaculture project???” and allow respondents to self identify, but I am reconsidering my strategy. I don’t want to exclude a potential amazing site for not loving the word “permauculture” while including an over-zealous permaculture fanatic who has yet to learn how to practice what they preach. The survey is becoming longer and longer as I think of questions that I consider important to discern what does an doesn’t count as “alternative food production sites.” Nothing is simple, but world wouldn’t be an interesting place it it was.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Dave says:

    Thanks for processing ‘out loud’ so I can think these thoughts along with you!


  2. Great post! I’m currently going through an urban PDC course in New York and I’ve been thinking about these questions too. From what I understand, permaculture is a design/system as much as it is a lifestyle, and so “urban permaculturalists” can exist as long as they do their best to minimize harm and live in a way that regenerates the earth as much as possible. But there’s some disconnect there, since city living is reliant on infrastructure and systems that are not sustainable/regenerative. So can “urban permaculture” really exist? I can see how coming up with a solid definition of what counts as permaculture is a tricky task, but thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! And good luck on your research!


    1. Thanks so much! I am particularly interested in urban agriculture and urban permaculture applications, so I spend a lot of time pondering these ideas. I have come to the personal conclusion that an individual can never really go “max permie” in the city, because it is impossible to be “self”-reliant in that setting. For instance a rooftop farm by definition has to have imported growing medium and nutrients. However, I think neighborhoods, and maybe even whole cities can absolutely be “self”-reliant by setting up the proper systems within their communities. For the whole city-scale this does mean major changes to infrastructure eventually.

      Liked by 1 person

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